At any other high school in Indiana, he already would have been “the man” when it came to football.
But Steven O’Neal goes to Columbus East.
Although O’Neal has put up outstanding offensive numbers — he had a combined 870 yards rushing and receiving in 2014 with 14 touchdowns — he took a backseat to Markell Jones, who rushed for a state record 3,536 yards and scored 60 touchdowns.
Jones is gone to Purdue and O’Neal, indeed, is now “the man.”
It is the kind of pressure that could squash some players. O’Neal is not one of those guys.
“People ask me if I am going to fill Markell’s shoes,” O’Neal said. “I say, ‘I am going to fill my own.'”
East coach Bob Gaddis said that his offensive philosophy will be run first despite the departure of Jones. He is confident that O’Neal will flourish.
“Our schemes have changed a little bit,” Gaddis said. “Steven is a different kind of back. But he has all the skills and vision, and we still are going to hang our hat on the inside zone rush.”
At 5-foot-8 and 172 pounds, it would appear that O’Neal will have trouble going inside. But Gaddis doesn’t see it as a problem.
“Steven is our guy, and he hasn’t backed down to that at all,” Gaddis said. “He is as highly-conditioned a player as I’ve ever had. His strength and agility numbers are phenomenal for a guy his size.
“He is a decent track guy, but in the 40, he’s really fast. He has a 39-inch vertical, and he is a record-setter in the power clean. He is a hard worker who is hard-nosed. He is a football player.”
O’Neal was timed this summer in 4.43 for the 40, a time that has Division I football schools interested. He will make his college decision after the current high school season.
But colleges should get plenty of film on him. He not only will be the No. 1 tailback, but he will be a safety in East’s nickle coverage as well in the secondary.
“Coach Gaddis said he was concerned that I would get tired,” O’Neal said. “I said, ‘Trust me.'”
Gaddis laughs when he thinks about O’Neal’s workout regimen. He knows that O’Neal is a devoted cross-fit athlete when he isn’t training with the football team.
O’Neal also has another workout that perhaps most people don’t know about.
“I am embarrassed to say that my dad (Dennis O’Neal) makes me do ballet,” he said. “Or I should say ballet-type training. He had a friend who was a ballet teacher.
“I’m not a big fan of it, but I still do it. I do it at night; it takes about 10 minutes.”
His brother, East junior linebacker T.C. O’Neal, is supposed to do the exercises as well, but Steven said his brother finds ways to get out of it.
Perhaps dad, who played football at Indiana State, knows a little something about conditioning because Steven O’Neal has kept his legs explosive and fresh. His mom, Shannon O’Neal, was a competitive youth swimmer as well, so athleticism runs in the family.
Now Steven O’Neal will be tested as the opposing defense’s No. 1 priority.
“I look at it the same way, I’m just doing my part,” he said. “I’ve got to make plays whenever we need them.”
He does have a bit different job as a senior leader, though.
“I just try to keep the team up by being a friend to everyone,” he said. “And especially the linemen.”
Do the Olympians have enough talent to make a run at a state title?
“I’m hoping,” he said. “We’re working hard and we all challenge each other.
“And Coach Gaddis always figures something out.”
WHO: Steven O’Neal
SCHOOL: Columbus East
POSITION: Tailback, safety
SIZE: 5-foot-8, 170 pounds
2014 STATS: Rushing, 63 for 313 yards, 8.1-yard average, 7 touchdowns; Receiving, 13 for 357 yards, 27.5-yard average, 6 touchdowns; Kickoff returns, 32.2-yard average, long of 86 yards, 1 touchdown